back to article Beyond iTunes: XML boffins target sheet music

One of the world's oldest and most successful "standards" – so standard in fact that western musical notation is simply called standard notation – does not yet have a standard way to be displayed on the web. But a W3C group formed earlier this year, in the summer of 2015, hopes to change that. The Music Notation Community …

  1. jake Silver badge


    My Linotype machine can cast 10 sizes of "Western" musical notation.

    Shirley that has been translated into Unicode?

    Oh. Wait. Why yes, yes it has. As of 2001 ...

    1. Robert Helpmann??

      Re: Eh?

      Right, you have had the ability to make musical notation symbols since 2001 but no standard framework in which to place them. Just because I can type ♩ ♪ ♫ doesn't provide the context needed to do anything useful with those symbols. The XML standard helps provide that context.

      1. MacroRodent Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        I wonder if having Unicode code points is even useful in any way. Musical notation is laid out in two dimensions and has lots of equivalent, but visually different ways to represent the same thing (all of which are used, depending on the style and preferences of whoever is writing the music). It does not map well into the idea of a character set.

        1. Jan 0 Silver badge

          Re: Eh?

          > It does not map well into the idea of a character set.

          Nor does many people's handwriting. I don't know about you but I use at least two styles of capital 'e's*, 'j's and 'w's when I write, along with variations on many other letters just to make the writing look good. Once I'm 'writing' using a computer font, I'm stuck with a single set of characters. Substituting different letter shapes from another font just looks weird and inconsistent, so I stick with the constraints and nobody complains about the uniformity imposed. Just like text, people will quickly accept a uniform set of musical notation so long as it makes it easier to write and read music.

          *One constructed with 4 straight lines, versus one that looks like a reversed 3.

          1. richardcox13

            Re: Eh?

            > I'm 'writing' using a computer font, I'm stuck with a single set of characters

            No you are not.

            Look up "Font Stylistic Sets": a single (Open Type) font/typeface can include multiple variations of each glyph; which can then vary contextually (shape is influenced by surrounding characters).

            Unicode supports this with Variation Selectors.

            Even Word (recent versions) supports this. Select a suitable font (eg. Gabriola) and use the Advanced tab of Font settings to change the stylistic set. Compare sets 1 and 7 for obvious differences.

            1. Jan 0 Silver badge

              Re: Eh?

              Richard, thanks very much for that clew! It's about 3 or 4 decades too late, but I'm glad you pointed me at this. I found from (can I live this down?) "" that it works with Word 2011, which is the newest version of Word that I possess:

              Select Word :: Preferences :: click Ribbon button :: Customize area, select Typography option.

              There don't seem to be many fonts which have stylistic sets and Gabriola doen't offer me a curvy 'E'. I see that Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop can use font stylistic sets, for small values of "use". Where else? Is there a better approach than MS OpenType? How many more decades before this becomes commonplace?

  2. Warm Braw Silver badge

    The browser is the least of the problems...

    If you're working with any serious multi-instrument score, screens are still a bit of a handicap - they tend to have the wrong orientation and insufficient resolution (and tablets aren't the answer because your fingers are too big to select individual notes conveniently). The days of putting an electronic device in front of an individual musician instead of a score are coming closer but composers and conductors are going to be relying on paper for some time.

    While MusicXML is fairly reliable now for interchanging notes, dynamics and other markup between various bits of software (at least for Western music), layout is generally not well preserved and that's actually important for sheet music - minimising the number of pages matters when you have a lot of performers, as does having the same bars appearing on the same numbered page. Work in that area would be very welcome.

    Since you've mentioned some specific bits of music software, can I put in a word for MuseScore? Extremely capable - and free!

    1. handle

      Re: The browser is the least of the problems...

      And open source.

      1. Chewi

        Re: The browser is the least of the problems...

        Also the only open source sheet music scanner, Audiveris, though it's been neglected a little of late.

    2. Nick Kew

      Re: The browser is the least of the problems...

      I'll second that MuseScore recommendation. And I thought MusML was working fine, having successfully exchanged music with a friend using different composition software.

      But I have to take issue with what you say about the screen. Yes, it's limiting if you're trying to score for substantial forces[1]. But so is paper: composers through the ages have had to deal with the limitations of the medium! And the 'puter has all the familiar advantages: edit and zoom, to name but two of the most obvious. And then when you have a presentation copy, you export it to PDF.

      [1] I've written for forces up to chorus and medium-sized orchestra using musescore on 13" macbook. Part of that was double-chorus, which tipped the screen size issue from an irritation to a serious pain, and I never finished that part.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Out of interest, what does it take to be an 'XML boffin'?

    I have found and used the following symbols on my keyboard: <, >, !, - /, :, . and "

    Does that count?

  4. Jonjonz

    xml to midi

    Once this is in place it is only a matter of time before someone codes a xml to midi converter.

    Midi fans rejoice!

    1. handle

      Re: xml to midi

      MuseScore and no doubt others can do that.

    2. hitmouse

      Re: xml to midi

      Essentially long-established art. Most music notation programs (which themselves allow round-tripping of custom file formats with MusicXML) have export to MIDI options.

      It is worth underlining the fact that MIDI provides performance/playback instructions and so opening a MIDI file in a notation program can show you a lot of jangly garbage unless you pre-process with a lot of heuristics regarding rhythm etc.

  5. Mage Silver badge

    Soundslice even offers an amazing (and free)

    Not really, they could be keeping a copy of everything uploaded? I don't know.

    BUT A FRIGGING WEB ONLY utility you have to UPLOAD to isn't a free application. It's potentially the evil of the cloud and only works online?

    MuseScore IS a free application.

  6. Steve 114


    Whaddya bet that the Standard will include 'Rights Management'. Just post an image, and we can cope. In fact, (paid-for) SharpEye will turn it into polyphonic ringtones pronto.

  7. GremlinUK

    Another alternative to XML

    Can I put in a plug for ABC notation - I've used it for generating sheet music and midi files for several years ( It's quick to write, human-readable (unlike most XML formats of any complexity), and controllable in layout and there are several open source tools available, my personal favourite being EasyABC (

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch

      Re: Another alternative to XML

      Also LilyPond.

  8. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Multiple standards?

    "Any truly broad-reaching standard will eventually need to expand to handle other forms of musical notation."

    Why go the "jack of all trades" route and not the "master of one" route? Do we really need one huge monolithic standard to cover musical notations which in some cases have absolutely nothing in common?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Multiple standards?

      There are no standards in music anyway, not the kind that everyone agrees on. A=440, equal temperament, 12 notes per octave, 7 (or 5) of those 12 to form a scale, repeats and jumps, straight 8ths or swing rhythm... that's just Western Music Theory 101. It amazes me that 500 year old music is totally readable, but the level of standardization is minimal.

      ABC is fine for melodies. Lilypond is slightly better for polyphony. Musescore is so much easier, though, especially v2. But all they're all too awkward for a lot of keyboard/guitar/drum music with polyphony that doesn't fit the software's concept of "voices" - one of those ancient concepts that's less rigid than programmers realize. No doubt MusicXML suffers from this flaw, in addition to being XML. Dear God, I hate XML. After 20 years, XML parsers still aren't secure or consistent. It's hopelessly complex.

      My rule of thumb: Handwrite for human players. Piano-roll editor for MIDI. Notation software for professional-quality printing/publishing. Audio recording for accurate reproduction.

      1. tony2heads

        Re: Multiple standards?

        My Baroque buddies would disagree about A=440Hz (try 415 Hz).

  9. Onga

    I can't read music but I can read XML. Pass me the guitar

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Eventually we'll get music delivered in two parts? Vocals and an 'instrumental instruction set' to combat dem dagonne pirates, yeeehaaaa!

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022